Virginia Governor Mark Warner stressed the importance of perseverance, respect for others and taking the time to thank one’s parents in a conversational keynote address during Sunday’s Commencement on the Ellipse.
Warner, a GW alumnus with a self-made fortune of $200 million, recalled memories from his time at GW in addition to sharing advice with the more than 20,000 graduates, University officials and guests.
“Perhaps you’ll remember this speech 20 years from now, or 20 minutes from now…what I hope you will remember, though, is the foundation that this university has built for you,” Warner said.
Warner, who graduated from GW in 1977 where he was the student speaker at the Commencement ceremony, shared “three beliefs” he said he wished somebody would have given him 26 years ago. He mentioned the importance of learning from failures, treating people with respect and thanking family members for their support.
He told the more than 4,000 graduates that they should not be afraid to fail, citing his early business defeats and eventual success. He said he lost his life savings of $5,000 in his first business venture, with the company going broke in six weeks. He said he continued to experience failures before starting a cellular company “based on a little known technology about putting telephones in cars.”
Warner went on to be a founding partner of the Columbia Capital Corporation, a venture capital fund that has helped start more than 65 businesses. A Democrat, Warner was elected as governor of Virginia in 2001 and presented a balanced budget last year amidst a severe budget crisis.
Warner also gave commencement addresses at George Mason University, the Virginia Military Institute and Radford University – all in Virginia – but said in an interview last week he would personalize his GW address because of his connection to the University.
In his speech Sunday, he also emphasized the importance of treating people respectfully and taking the time to meet with people face to face.
“Things move so fast today that we often ignore how we treat other people,” he said, noting that people don’t look at each other “eye to eye,” when they talk to one another and dismiss opinions of those with whom they don’t agree.
“I’ve made a pretty good living off of cellular telephones, but there comes a time when it’s time to hang up the phone and get back to talking to people face to face and eye to eye,” Warner said. He suggested people take time to write a thank you note with a pen and not to call one’s elders by their first name unless asked.
His third piece of advice, which drew cheers from family members of graduates, was to “call your mother.”
“In this world, billions of people will never be able to dream of going to college or graduate school, and you didn’t make it here on your own,” he said. “Your family helped you get here, and they won’t be around forever.”
He began the speech by listing some of his memories of GW, recalling riding his bike to Capitol Hill to intern with members of Congress, living in Thurston Hall and playing basketball with friends in the gymnasium called the Tin Tabernacle, the Smith Center’s predecessor.
Graduates cheered at his mention of Thurston Hall and chuckled when he recounted an observation of the men’s basketball team.
“I remember thinking that the George Washington men’s basketball team was only one year from success,” he recalled. “I guess some things haven’t changed.”
Officials said Warner was asked to keynote the ceremony in past years, but scheduling conflicts prevented him from accepting until this year.
University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said he thought Warner’s speech was good and followed most Commencement addresses as he sought to pass on “earnest wisdom and advice.” He called Warner a “continuing benefactor” who he speaks to once in a while about “occasional pieces of business.”
Warner served on the GW Board of Trustees from 1993 to 2001 and resigned because of possible conflicts of interest after his election as governor, Trachtenberg said.
While some students said they were disappointed to have another political speaker after four years in Washington, most students said they were pleased with his speech Sunday.
“I thought his comments were thoughtful and it was interesting to hear from someone from GW who’s now successful,” graduate Josh Rothstein said.
“I wasn’t sure about him at first, but once he started speaking, I thought he was good. It was cool having an alumnus talking about Thurston and the basketball team,” graduate Sarah Donovan said.
Brown University President Ruth Simmons spoke at last year’s Commencement.
-Andrea Nurko contributed to this report.